The Virtue of Hope in the Age of Coronavirus

A sermon on John 4:5-42 given by the Rev. Teri Daily on March 15, 2020…

Our world has changed drastically in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago we began Lent with face-to-face Sunday worship and Wednesday night soup suppers; now we find ourselves joining one another online and eating meals at home. Two weeks ago we were moving ahead with plans for Spring Break; now we wonder if we dare count on having a wedding four months from now. Two weeks ago we went to the grocery store with short list of items meant to last us a week; now we go from store to store in search of enough toilet paper to last us a month. We are living with an amount of uncertainty that can be overwhelming and scary. Where can we turn for hope?

We hope that the number of coronavirus cases will decline when warmer weather comes. We hope that everyone will wash their hands frequently. We hope that people who think they may have been exposed to the virus will self-quarantine. We hope that the ability to test for the disease will be widespread in the very near future. And all of these things may well come to pass. But all of these for which we hope are also things that are out of our personal control.

That’s the problem with how we so often speak about hope. We often speak about hope in ways that are tied to outcome. Will the lump I feel end up being benign and not cancer, will I get accepted to law school, will I find the person of my dreams to share the rest of my life? When these things don’t go as we expect, we can find ourselves left without hope. 

We see this kind of hope, hope tied to specific outcomes and events, throughout the bible. God intervenes in dramatic ways to part the waters of the Red Sea, to make manna fall from heaven, to save Daniel in the lions’ den, to open the heavens and speak at Jesus’ baptism, to dissolve language barriers at Pentecost. But what happens to this kind of hope when things don’t go as we had prayed they would? When our cancer doesn’t respond to treatment or our marriage falls apart or the number of coronavirus cases climbs?

As Episcopal priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault points out in her book Mystical Hope, there is another kind of hope that we also find in the bible – a hope not tied strictly to outcome, but a hope that meets Job in his grief and Paul in his imprisonment.  This other kind of hope – called “mystical hope” – has to do with the presence of God in our lives at each and every moment. It’s not based on the dramatic, extraordinary manifestations of God that occur periodically. Instead, mystical hope is grounded in the knowledge that in God we live and move and have our being. It is grounded in the soul’s knowledge that we dwell in God always and everywhere, and that God dwells in us also. This kind of hope brings with it joy, strength, and courage. [1] And it is this kind of hope that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman at the well in today’s gospel reading.

We don’t know a lot about the Samaritan woman’s life. But when Jesus tells her to go and call her husband, she replies that she has no husband. And at that point Jesus lays bare her marital history: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!” Too often in the Church we make this Samaritan woman into an icon of immorality. But we don’t know from this passage if her five husbands died in succession, or if she has been divorced or abandoned.  And we don’t know if is, at the time of this encounter, in a Levirate marriage, where a widow who has no children is taken in by her husband’s brother so that she may produce an heir.  In that case, the two may not technically be considered “married.” 

Some speculate that no respectable woman would come to the well in the heat of the day but, frankly, maybe she is busy and has other things to get done that day, too.  After all, Jesus never says to her “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” as he does to the woman caught in adultery.  The truth is that we tend to wrap this Samaritan woman in stories of our choosing, instead of seeing her as Jesus sees her – as someone who is deeply, spiritually thirsty, as someone who like all of us is in need of true hope.

Jesus recognizes not just the thirst that brought the woman to the well, but the deeper spiritual thirst in her life. That’s why he offers her living water, saying: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman says to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”  She admits that she has a deep, unquenchable thirst, although at this point she is still talking of a physical thirst.  But when Jesus explains that he is the Messiah, she immediately leaves her water jug and runs to the village, full of exuberant hope. She tells the people there about her encounter with Jesus, saying: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!”

What we see in this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is something we see throughout the gospel of John. People come to believe in Jesus, to have hope in Jesus, not because of the signs he does, but through the intimate encounters they share with him – through the spring of water gushing up in them during those encounters. They experience hope.

In this time of uncertainty, many of us long for just this kind of hope, a hope that springs from the deepest part of our soul. As Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us, hope “does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy ending. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth.”[2] It is this deep-seated hope that sends the Samaritan woman running toward town to share with everyone the life-giving encounter she has had with Jesus. It is this deep-seated hope that gushes from the center of our being, giving us strength and courage and even joy in these uncertain and difficult times. It is this deep-seated hope that, even as we navigate through uncharted territory, has us not turning inward in fear but thinking about the needs of those around us.

A friend of mine was struggling with ovarian cancer. As she became sicker, hope began to spring up in her from that deep place within where she dwelled with God and God dwelled with her. Her joy actually seemed to increase as time went on, and she began to minister to and spread hope to all the other women in the chemotherapy department who were also struggling with ovarian cancer. The deeper her own relationship with God became, the more she was able to focus on the deep-seated thirst for hope that others around her had.

May this be our experience of Lent this year. In these times in which we cannot predict the future, may a “mystical hope” bubble up within us from the core of our being, from that place where God dwells in us and we dwell in God. May this hope turn our hearts outward in love for our neighbor instead of inward in fear for ourselves. May it send us out to provide meals to those who experience more food insecurity during this time than usual, to call and check on our neighbors, to care for those whose livelihood is compromised. May it expose the very-deepest thirst in our lives for what it is – the desire to know deep down that nothing can ever sperate us from the presence of God. And may it kindle in us the assurance that in the midst of coronavirus, as in the midst of all things, God is at work in the world in ways that are life-giving.

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (New York, Cowley Publications, 1991) 1-18.

[2] Bourgeault 86-87.

The Virtue of Hope in the Age of Coronavirus
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